Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) are leading an effort to permanently expand college students’ access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, which helps provide food to people with low incomes.
The lawmakers introduced a bill on Tuesday that would help address food insecurity among college students by permanently extending the current expansion to SNAP that gives more college students access for the duration of the pandemic. The temporary expansions benefit an estimated 3 million students.
Both the temporary expansions and the proposed bill make it possible for students who are eligible for work-study programs with a $0 Expected Family Contribution financial aid estimate and who meet the requirements for a Pell grant to access SNAP benefits. The bill also specifies that an independent student can qualify if their family is eligible for the program.
“Far too many college students struggle to meet their basic needs while they get their education — and the pandemic has made this problem even worse,” said Warren in a statement. “As students take on a mountain of student loan debt, they shouldn’t have to choose between paying tuition and eating. Our bill will ensure college students can succeed without going hungry.”
The new bill establishes a grant program that provides $1 billion a year to higher education institutions to study and identify areas of food insecurity among their students. At least 33 percent of the grants must go to community colleges. Priority for grants, according to language in the bill, must also go toward historically Black colleges and universities, institutions with a high proportion of Pell grant recipients and other minority-serving institutions.
Warren and Sanders were joined by Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) and Alex Padilla (D-California) and Representatives Jahana Hayes (D-Connecticut), Al Lawson (D-Florida) and Norma Torres (D-California) in introducing the bill. The bill, which is an amalgam of several previous Democratic bills, also has several co-sponsors in the Senate, according to the press release.
“Every college student deserves a quality education free of hunger,” said Sanders in a statement. “In the richest country in the world, it is an outrage that college students struggle with hunger every day. Enough is enough. We must eradicate hunger on college campuses.”
Indeed, there is a large portion of college students who suffer from food insecurity in the United States. In a fact sheet on the bill, the lawmakers cite a recent report by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University that found nearly 40 percent of community college students face food insecurity and 14 percent have experienced homelessness. They also point to a 2018 U.S. Government Accountability Office report that found over 30 percent of college students overall may experience food insecurity.
Food and basic needs insecurity not only affects students’ well-being, it also keeps students from properly benefitting from their education. The Hope Center report found that, of students who experienced food insecurity, over half reported not buying required textbooks and a quarter reported dropping a class.
These challenges, which have only worsened over the pandemic, don’t affect all students equally. Due to a myriad of factors that disproportionately affect Black, Latinx and Indigenous students, such as losing part-time work during the pandemic at a higher rate, these populations are more likely than their white counterparts to experience shortages of food and other basic needs, according to the report.
Allowing more students to access SNAP has been life-changing for some. A Colorado graduate student, Benu Amun-Ra, told Chalkbeat Colorado, “It has changed my diet.… What I can afford now allows me to go to local grocery stores to purchase fresh produce and fruits and vegetables.”
The lawmakers’ push to address food insecurity in college students comes on the heels of another Sanders push to help feed children in schools.
Last Friday, Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) introduced a bill that would create a permanent universal school meals program to feed all students, regardless of income, free breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack. The program would be an extension and expansion of another pandemic-related program that provided free school lunches to children.